Friday, July 14, 2006

Everything Old Is New... to Thomas Friedman

Behind the Firewall, the New York Times' ostensible expert on the Middle East writes,
When you watch the violence unfolding in the Middle East today it is easy to feel that you’ve been to this movie before and that you know how it ends - badly. But we actually have not seen this movie before. Something new is unfolding, and we’d better understand it.

What we are seeing in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon is an effort by Islamist parties to use elections to pursue their long-term aim of Islamizing the Arab-Muslim world.
This is new? Are we using geological measures of time? (Ten thousand years ago there were no elections at all, and now, suddenly....)

While Friedman suggests that this phenomenon is mostly a concern in nations like Iraq or Lebanon, or in the Palestinian Territories, where political factions may also contol their own militias. Is it truly a secret to Thomas Friedman that there have long been significant concerns over the possibility that democratic elections in the Middle East that anti-Western and Islamist groups may gain power or even control of the government if free elections were truly permitted in Saudi Arabia or Egypt?
The world needs to understand what is going on here: the little flowers of democracy that were planted in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories are being crushed by the boots of Syrian-backed Islamist militias who are desperate to keep real democracy from taking hold in this region and Iranian-backed Islamist militias desperate to keep modernism from taking hold.
Is the problem, then, that there are Islamist parties, that there are parties which control militias, or just that there are Islamist parties that control militias? And in which of those regions are the Islamist parties actually complaining about democracy, or fearing that it might spread? When you're winning elections you generally want democracy to spread (even if you aren't particularly to maintaining it in the longer-term).

To Friedman, democracy seems to mean "You should hold free and fair elections, and vote for whomever you want... as long as you elect the right person and party." Am I wrong, or are the shifts in mindset required for democracy and progressive government to take hold largely generational in nature - if you grow up with them, they seem like second-nature, but they're hard to impose upon a population which is used to something else. (And, unfortunately, they seem easier to tear down than to build up.) To state the obvious, even in the absence of private militias holding an election, even if it is free or fair, is no guarantee that a nation will be transformed into a democracy, nor is it a guarantee that the elected leader will be the person Thomas Friedman would prefer.

1 comment:

  1. I put a long comment up last night, which blogger apparently ate as a midnight snack, asking if I am being unfair to Friedman. He sees Islamist participation in democracy as being something new; I see it as yet another example of the standard power grab using whatever means are available. If you define something narrowly enough, anything can be described as "new" - but what's the actual difference?

    I think our primary difference of opinion is how we view the "little flower" of democracy - he seems to view it as something that could grow into progressive, western-style democracy (if only the right people would start winning the elections). I don't think the seeds of democracy are planted so easily. At its core, this may well be why he favored the Iraq war ("democracy is easy"), whereas I thought we were going in with extremely unrealistic expectations ("democracy is hard"). (Should I add Rumsfeld to the mix - "democracy is messy".) Friedman seems only now to be awakening to the fact that it is not easy to turn a totalitarian state into a democracy, and that it is not easy to keep the totalitarians from running and even taking control of a government. (He's a "Middle East" expert, so you'll forgive him for not noticing what Putin has been doing in Russia.)

    Also, he views the role of private militias or armies as being significant. I can't say that I'm surprised that Hezbollah has refused to disarm its military wing, which is probably militarily more powerful than Lebanon's official military. If you can't be a democracy before the militias are disarmed, perhaps Friedman needs to add Afghanistan to his list of failed budding democracies. Perhaps also Ireland, as last I checked the various sectarian factions (IRA and Unionist) were still refusing to disarm.

    Finally, Friedman views Islamists as "opposing" democracy and fearing its spread. If you took a vote of Islamists in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, my guess is that they would favor democracy because they would anticipate winning elections. I will grant that once in power they would probably favor limiting democracy in the style of Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, or Iraq under Hussein; but that's not much different than the limited systems of democracy Egypt and Saudi Arabia use to limit their ability to participate in and win elections. So again, what's new about this? If you limit the definition of "democracy" to "progressive, western-style democracy", we're speaking of an institution which seems to be feared by a great many people in this country....


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